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Vancouver Island University board cancels its music programs in vote

The music department chair says the department has been told it will offer music electives to other students in the university, though no clear plan has been provided.
Several hundred letters of support were sent to the university board in support of VIU’s bachelor of music and jazz diploma programs before the decision, including from half a dozen Juno-award winners. VIA VANCOUVER ISLAND UNIVERSITY

Vancouver Island University’s board of governors has voted to shutter its longstanding music programs, which have been a staple of the institution since 1969, as a cost-cutting measure.

Music department chair Sasha Koerbler said the ­department was told it will offer music ­electives but that no clear plan has been provided.

Several hundred letters of support were sent to the ­university board in support of VIU’s bachelor of music and jazz diploma programs before the decision, including from half a dozen Juno award-winners, a former conductor and musical director at the Moscow ­Symphony Orchestra, and a number of regional music groups and associations.

A revival of VIU’s jazz diploma was supposed to happen this fall and some students were already registered in their classes, Koerbler said. 

At the meeting, VIU president Deborah Saucier brought up the possibility of mothballing VIU’s music building, saying it required about $4 million in repairs, Koerbler said.

Koerbler suspects the vote was swayed by that last-minute information, which had ­previously not been part of the discussions. “Why were we teaching in this building if the condition is so bad?” she asked. “In which building then are we [offering electives], if they’re mothballing this building?”

Koerbler said VIU was one of the first post-secondary institutions to offer student credentials in jazz — well before McGill’s four-year degree in jazz music that began in 1981.

The music department last bought new equipment decades ago, Koerbler said.

“We’ve just been continually cut, cut, cut — another slice and another slice since after the [2011 faculty] strike.”

Prior to the vote on Thursday, Nanaimo MLA Sheila Malcolmson said in a statement that she had confidence in VIU’s ability to support all of its current students and for them to “make the music world brighter here in Nanaimo and beyond.”

“If VIU chooses to shut down this program fully, this will be an independent operational decision of the institution and not influenced or directed by government,” said Malcolmson.

Provost Michael Quinn said in a statement Friday that VIU must be fiscally responsible as a public university. “These are difficult but necessary decisions that reflect a move towards VIU’s financial sustainability.”

Quinn, who was unavailable for an interview, confirmed there are plans to shutter the music building after a provincial assessment estimated repairing the building to “good” condition would cost $4.3 million.

Chief financial officer Emily Huner said Friday VIU has accumulated an operating deficit of $34.6 million since 2019, which will grow to $43.5 million with the approved 2024-25 deficit budget.

The university could run out of cash in as little as 18 months if a plan to cut expenses by 10 per cent doesn’t go ahead, according to a KPMG audit.

Emma Keeler-Dugas, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills, said in a statement that the ministry and VIU are in regular communication on the university’s “prudent” deficit mitigation plan.

Nanaimo singer and performer Joëlle Rabu said the loss of the program devastating for the mid-Island music community. Rabu, who tours internationally, said VIU was crucial in taking talented high schoolers and turning them into professional musicians.

“It’s the youth, that are coming out of high school jazz programs, or music training, voice training, they’re the ones that are going to be suffering.”

Carmella Luvisotto, band director of the Wellington Secondary School Jazz Academy, said the program losses will create a significant void for high school students looking to continue their music education.

Going elsewhere will cost “a lot more money,” she said. “VIU was the only place north or south of Nanaimo that has offered a jazz degree program. There’s nothing else like it on the Island, so my students are now going to have to leave.”

The 14 VIU board members either declined to comment or did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Times Colonist.

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